How to set screen time boundaries at home

on Oct 14, 2017

IMG_4770There is little doubt that we all spend too much time on our phones. A survey last year found that we touch this addictive device around 2,600 times a day on average. This obsession is not healthy for us but is also harmful to our relationships: 41% of respondents to a recent Deloitte study said they believe their partner spends too much time on their mobile. Our usage has exploded because many of us now use –and need– our phones to do a myriad things including pay for parking, book doctors appointments, reserve library books, record memories, drive somewhere new or consult our bank accounts.

Still, there is increasing awareness that we should all be cutting down, especially when it comes to idle time spent on social media. Ironically, Instagram is awash with status posts detailing the user’s digital detox experiments these days.

Now consider how difficult we, as adults, find it to set boundaries on our usage and manage to be fully present and engaged in other activities –whether it is reading a novel or catching up in person with an old friend—and you can see how tricky it is for our children, who have grown up immersed in the technology.

We are only beginning to understand how much exposure to screen time/social media/gaming is affecting brain development, social behaviour and mental health in children, but the emerging data is sobering. Too much screen time decreases ability to read emotions, has been linked to childhood obesity and is increasingly blamed for teens’ and pre-teens’ plummeting confidence and the associated psychological problems. Mrs Zoe Sylvester, head of Broadhurst School, told us she has noticed an increase in children requiring some intervention in the form of speech therapy. She suggests that this could be linked to the amount of time spent on devices, not just by children but also by their parents. She believes that some children and their parents and carers spend less time talking and more time engaging with screens. It is interesting to observe how many adults pushing buggies and prams are simultaneously on their phones, as opposed to talking to the child in their charge.

Meanwhile the devices aren’t going away. So how can you help your child establish healthy boundaries and learn to exercise self-control? Here are some general tips and guidelines that you may find helpful.

  1. Discuss family rules about phone usage ahead of handing your child their first device and draw up a technology contract where said rules are put in writing. With younger children, set a daily or weekly limit and identify times of day when technology can or cannot be used. For older children, it’s usually a good idea to clearly state from the get go that the device is your property, lent to them. That means you are entitled to both the unlocking code and full access to the phone at any time. Other items to discuss may include use of headphones (convenient when travelling but otherwise really isolating), banned applications, right to create specific social media accounts, rules on posting photos or videos and whether you should be friends or not on social media.
  1. Remember that not all phones are created equal. Many parents yield to requests for a phone once their child starts traveling to school on their own. Recent data shows that the average age that children receive their first smartphone is now 10.3 years. There is no reason, however, why this first phone should be a smartphone. Consider alternatives such as the Tinitell, a wearable and GPS-trackable phone that allows your child to place calls to up to 12 contacts. If you prefer the less distracting phone format,  a bare-bone feature phone like the Nokia 105 classic –which has no camera– will do the trick.
  1. Veto access to phones at night. Decide on a location where all family devices go to bed and stick to it, leading by example. Side benefit: a clean charging station and no more more unsightly wires all over the house. Many people argue they can’t do this because they use their phone as an alarm. Buy a cheap alarm for your bedside table.
  1. Be Internet safe and turn parental controls on. Nearly all providers allow you to block -18 sites as well as social media and news sites you may find inappropriate. Do it. Now.
  1. Ensure your children consume advertisement-free media. There are many apps, including the marvellous BBC KidsIplayer, that offer appropriate and often educational content on demand without any advertising. YouTube Kids isn’t one of them. I assure you your little ones do not need to watch a single gift unwrapping  video to grow into fulfilled individuals.
  1. If you have older children and work mostly outside the home, invest in a really good app to limit and control usage. We like KidsLox. It allows for excellent remote management of all the devices in your home. The kids will hate it. You will love it. Plenty of other options –mostly parental control routers– detailed in this excellent post.
  1. For those considering boarding schools, technology usage is an important question to ask. What sort of limits and controls are in place? Do the children have access to a Wi-Fi network? Is there a policy on mobile and computer usage? Some children leave when they’re only 7 and while it’s completely understandable for their parents to want them to have a phone so they can be in touch it is essential to understand how they will be protected. Some day schools in London, such as the Acorn School in Morden, have taken drastic measures against screen use such as forbidding all electronic devices at school and requesting parents to impose very strict limits at home.
  1. Finally if you want a better sense of your own usage (you may be surprised), there are applications such as In Moment that let you see how many times a day you unlock your phone and how much time you spend on each social media app. Among the many tricks you could then use to reduce your usage are: deleting apps entirely or moving them to the back pages of your phones, turning your device on to flight mode whenever you are meeting someone, turning off notifications etc.
  2. Stay on top of the technology. If you don’t understand how Internet connectivity and the social media world work –whether it’s Snapchat or Instagram–, then you won’t grasp the myriad ways that they can be misused to embarrass or bully your child and you won’t be able to equip them to deal with it. In the same way, if you don’t know how easy it can be to bypass parental controls –there are plenty of online step-by-step guides–, then you won’t manage to keep on top of your child’s online life.
Aude is a co-founder of Magus Education. She is an Ivy League graduate and worked for more than a decade as a journalist for publications including Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. She writes about all education matters and has a special interest in multilingual children and promoting a simpler childhood.